Gray

There’s a lot that social and political theology can learn from the work of John Gray. The author of Straw Dogs, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, and many other idol bashing works, Gray’s corpus consistently undercuts the blithe assertions of liberal-solutionism.

Despite technological advancement, humanity is not getting any better on moral, ethical, or political grounds; which is to say, on all the stuff that really matters. Gray claims that we are not becoming more rational, at least not in any meaningful sense. Advancements in technology entail an equal degree of advancements in barbarism, such as exploding smartphone technology in the West and growing mountains of eco-waste developing in Africa. “Progress is a fact,” writes Gray, “faith in progress is a superstition” (Straw Dogs, 155).

Of course, on Gray’s account humanity goes nowhere: there’s no eschatological horizon or telos, at least not in any works that I’ve seen. Gray is far from religious, using Darwinian theories against the typical liberal grain. Although it’s too much to say that Gray is a mere pessimist, as he’s really can only be labeled a pessimist in relation to optimistic market liberalism, his work does strike a dour note. As he gleefully reminds us, “the middle class is a luxury that capitalism can no longer afford” (ST, 161). However, it is a dour note that comes as a much needed breathe of fresh air, as a sense of someone who is telling it as it is; as someone who takes it upon himself to put an end to the bullshit. In this he might share some sentiments with someone on the other end of the political spectrum, Roger Scruton and his The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope.

In one of Gray’s recent articles, he notes how “airport bookstalls are overflowing with books touting scientific solutions to ancient human dilemmas” that sprout every few weeks.

“Books in this rapidly expanding genre follow a common recipe. Infused with a breathless enthusiasm for the latest theories in evolutionary psychology, they use these speculations to present souped-up versions of long discredited philosophies. Revealing little knowledge or interest in the history of ideas, they go on to present these rejigged philosophies as providing solutions to age-old difficulties.”

Gray’s take on pop-social science shares a sentiment exposed by John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. The social sciences, as we’ve come to know them, have excluded the transcendent from the get-go. Certain strands of theology decided long ago that reason and faith should be excluded and in so doing created the space of pure nature. As the argument continues, it wasn’t long before the social sciences took over the pride of place once held by theology and philosophy. The irony is that the social sciences now hold the god’s eye view, a vantage free the messiness of cultural situatedness. There’s also a fair bit of physics envy going on.

Which is why, to get back to Gray, most of these new solutions always seem to have little interest in their own genealogies. They have to being something new, something progressive to the table, as the past is de facto “backwards.” Reductionism soon becomes the name of the game. If it can’t be measured, it’s useless. The measure of progress demands what is quantifiable, like GDP growth.

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